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DIRECTED BY: Agniia Galdanova

FEATURING: Jenna Marvin

PLOT: A queer Russian performance artist fears for her freedom as she clashes with the law.

Still from Queendom (2023)

COMMENTS wrote that the responsibility of the artist is to “keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is important.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone embodying this principle more explicitly than “drag” artist Jenna (sometimes spelled “Gena”) Marvin.

I put “drag” in quotes, because, although her act is drag-inspired and drag-adjacent, that term hardly describes Marvin’s bizarre performance art. The locals who are discomfited by her appearance clearly recognize that she is challenging gender norms—she is frequently met with the Russian word for “fag”—but her costumes are so otherworldly and alien that they don’t meet a strict definition of cross-dressing. Tall, lithe (almost a ballerina body), and completely hairless, Jenna adorns herself with elaborate makeup and an assortment of bizarre sartorial choices including ruffs, duct tape, giant pipe cleaners, tentacle fingers, surreal latticed headgear, and so on. The only consistently feminine element are the high heels that accessorize every outlandish outfit.  She ventures out in public to, at best, stares, and at worst verbal abuse and harassment. She also makes short films for Tik Tok and Instagram—often set in amazing Siberian wilderness locations—where she takes out her frustrations by thrashing around in the mud in wild interpretative dances. Most dangerously, she attends protests against the Putin regime. In one, she dresses in a stilleto-heeled mockery of the Russian flag, which gets her thrown out of college; when the Ukrainian invasion comes, she walks down a Moscow street nearly nude wrapped in homemade barbed wire, which earns her a citation from the police and the threat of a court date.

With no narration and only a tiny bit of direct questioning from the documentarian, Queendom is almost entirely a fly-on-the-wall affair. It conveys enough information to keep you grounded in the developing story, although some knowledge of recent developments in Putin’s Russia is helpful. Anti-LGTBQ sentiment is encoded into the law there; faces of protestors or Jenna ‘s artistic collaborators are often blurred or carefully kept out of frame out of a sense of caution. But the social ostracism Jenna faces is perhaps even more telling. (“We have fear and subservience in our DNA,” Jenna’s friend tells her, referencing the country’s Soviet legacy.) Jenna’s contentious relationship with her grandfather—who, we gather, raised her—takes up a large portion of the story. Grandpa supports her, in his way, but does not pretend to understand either her sexuality or her creativity. His main concern is that, if she’s going to continue dressing as a freak, she better figure out how to make some money at it.

In the end—mild spoiler alert—Jenna does not go to prison or (worse) succumb to conscription, but is able to flee Russia to a European capital where she feels at home in a far more tolerant society. She has more courage than most of us, but does not, like Alexei Navalny (whose protest she attended dressed as the flag) have the ultimate courage to become a martyr. And who among us would? If I were in her heels, I would have fled far faster. She may have a duty to keep a margin of nonconformity alive—but she also has a responsibility to keep herself alive.


“…more than a mere cabaret act, Marvin’s myriad outfits are a thrilling combination of theatricality, circus craft, avant-garde performance art, high camp, and something more otherworldly besides — as if H.R. Giger and Derek Jarman had a grotesque, unsettling baby… as well as the straight documentarian footage, there are surreal vignettes, Marvin creating visual art with her outfits and her emotions.”–John Nugent, Empire (contemporaneous)

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